PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA National’s signature test is a three-hole span on the back nine called “The Bear Trap,” named for Jack Nicklaus and touted as one of the most demanding stretches in all of golf.
The par-3 15th, with water down the right side. The par-4 16th, with the approach over water. The par-3 17th, over water again with a green that’s sloped toward trouble. Oh, and the wind is almost always swirling on that part of the golf course.
They’re daunting on a good day, diabolical on a bad day. And to win The Honda Classic, which starts Thursday at PGA National, one needs to worry about much more than those three holes.
The Bear Trap is one thing. The rest of PGA National, that’s a bear, too.
“There’s no easy hole out there,” defending champion Keith Mitchell said.
The numbers make that abundantly clear. PGA National ranked as the fifth-toughest course to play on the PGA Tour last season, behind tracks that played host to four of what were supposed to be among the year’s toughest tournaments. The PGA Championship at Bethpage had players, on average, shooting 2.5 shots over par per round. The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, nearly 1.4 shots over par. The World Golf Championships event in China at Sheshan International, 1.3 shots over par. And the British Open at Royal Portrush, 1.2 shots over par.
Next up? The Honda, where players were just over a full shot past par in every round last season. And that meant it was easier than in 2018, when PGA National was the second toughest on tour behind only the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
“It’s a hard golf course,” said 2019 U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland. “I think that benefits me. Scores are never going to get too low. Obviously, it’s a lot weather-depending. But it’s one of the most mentally demanding golf courses I think we face all year. There’s a lot of shots, especially coming down the back nine, that you just have to step up and hit shots. There’s really no bailout.”
There are a few safe bets for this week at the Honda: Nobody is going to run away with the tournament, and it’ll be a shock if someone leaves town Sunday night after carding four rounds in the 60s.
This will be the 14th time that the Honda is played on PGA National’s Champion course; in the previous 13, four titles were decided in playoffs and only twice did the winner prevail by more than two shots. Nobody had four rounds in the 60s last year or in 2018; only seven players pulled off that feat between 2010 and 2017.
Par is never disappointing at PGA National: Last year, players broke par on 17% of their holes played, and gave back at least one stroke 19% of the time.
“The golf course has always been pretty good,” said Brooks Koepka, who finished tied for second at the Honda last year and, at No. 3, is the highest-ranked player in this year’s field. “It’s tough. I like that.”
And while the Bear Trap is a problem, none of those holes ranked even among the toughest five on the course last year. The par-4, 479-yard 6th played to an average of 4.37 in last year’s tournament, making it the fourth-toughest hole on tour last season. The par-4, 450-yard 11th, the par-4, 508-yard 10th, the par-4, 465-yard 14th and the par-3, 217-yard fifth all proved tougher than anything in the Bear Trap as well.
But Woodland saw a bright side: The tests this week are a great primer for what looms on the not-too-distant schedule.
“I like getting to be able to hit some shots, some pressure shots before leading up to The Players and the Masters right around the corner,” Woodland said. “It’s nice for me to get some mental confidence going on a tough golf course.”
Viktor Hovland, who got his first PGA Tour win last weekend in Puerto Rico, had never played PGA National until a late-afternoon round Tuesday. He started on the back nine, putting his tee ball on the 10th into the lip of a bunker about 260 yards away and 235 yards to the flag.
“I was like, ‘Well, this is a pretty easy par-5 if I just catch one,'" Hovland said.
That's when he was told the 10th is a par-4. In other words: Welcome to PGA National.
“There's a lot of really tough holes out there," Hovland said.
NOTES: Koepka is the only player in the field currently ranked among the world’s top 10. ... A slew of big-name South Florida residents like Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy aren’t playing this week. ... The Honda purse is up for a fourth straight year, now a record $7 million, which means a record $1.26 million is going to the winner. That’s $36,000 more than Mitchell got last year.